Personal Finance 101: What Is a 529?

Investing in a 529 Plan

pf101Fairly regularly on The Simple Dollar, I mention that I’m investing in 529 college savings plans for my two children. Each month, I automatically contribute $100 to each of their plans – and I’ve considered contributing more than that.

But what’s a 529? Erin writes in with a typical query:

You write all the time about saving for your kids college education in a 529. What is that? How do you do it?

Let’s dig in.

What Is a 529?

A 529 plan is simply an investment account with a few tax advantages that make it very useful for saving for higher education. To be specific, any interest or investment income earned in the account that is then used for higher education is exempt from federal taxes (and from state taxes in many locations). In some states, the contributions themselves are deductible from state taxes.

There are two types of 529 accounts: prepaid accounts and savings accounts. Prepaid accounts are used to purchase tuition “credits” at certain institutions at current rates, so, for example, you might be able to purchase a semester’s worth of tuition at East Overshoe Tech at the current rate of $10,000 a semester, but in fifteen years when your child is actually attending the school, tuition might cost $20,000 but you won’t pay a dime – you’ve already purchased that semester.

On the other hand, savings accounts are basically just investment accounts – you contribute money, it goes into the stock market or into bonds, and any gains you earn stay within the account. When the account’s beneficiary goes to college, the money can be used at any school. In other words, savings-style 529s are more flexible, but they often don’t return quite as well (since higher education tuition growth is usually greater than the stock market).

Most states have their own 529 plans with specific rules; however, many states have plans that are open to people from other states to contribute.

Another important aspect of 529 plans is that the beneficiary does not control the account – the person that opens the account controls the money. This is a great protection, as it keeps overzealous children from “cashing in” on their college savings.

How Do I Do It?

My investments go through College Savings Iowa. This offers me a number of specific benefits.

1. As an Iowa resident, my contributions to my children’s plans are deductible from state income taxes.

Largely because of these contributions, we received a refund on our state taxes this year, while we had to pay in a small amount on our federal taxes.

2. College Savings Iowa uses Vanguard to manage their investments, and Vanguard is a company I already trust with my retirement savings and other investments.

The plan offers quite a few stellar investment choices – I’m currently using the “aggressive” target investing plan for both of my children, which is a low-cost collection of index funds that strive to earn large returns.

3. The plan is tied in directly with Upromise.

Once I signed up with this program, a small percentage of our credit card usage goes straight into those 529 accounts. It’s usually a small amount each month, but this money is essentially an additional free contribution to my children’s college savings plans.

How Do I Sign Up?

First, you need to decide which plan to use. Most states offer their own 529 plans, but they all vary quite a bit. You should start by seriously considering the plan in your own state, because many state plans offer income tax breaks for state residents – you can find your own state’s plan by Googling your state’s name and 529.

If your own state doesn’t offer a plan or only offers a plan you don’t like (such as a 529 that only allows prepayment of tuition to universities you don’t like), look at plans available in other states. Liz Pulliam Weston at MSN MoneyCentral has identified five great state plans, for starters.

Once you’ve signed up, you’ll set up an automatic investment plan that draws whatever amount you specify each week or month from your checking account and puts it away for your children’s education (or your grandchildren’s education … or your own). It’s quite easy, and it’s a great way to get started with college savings.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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